Venice Film Festival capsule reviews #3

Note: the Venice Film Festival is now almost behind us, but Ambrož Pivk, jury member for the Venice Days section of the festival, still has something to say on a few films in this final recap, including word on the Golden Lion winner..

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, 2014)

Ending the festival on a very high note, I was unfamiliar with Andersson’s previous work but was drawn in right from the beginning. Built on a series of only partially connected but thematically coherent vignettes, Andersson creates a subtle, touching examination of an ordinary person’s experience of existence, never touching the subject explicitly philosophically but rather letting the audience transform themselves into the characters’ situations. The film still has a beautifully constructed arc, starting with a number of excellent comedic scenes and funny recurring motifs (phone conversations always going “I’m glad to hear you’re doing well”) that gradually feel less and less funny until the film ends with a sense of melancholy and bitterness. The twist that it makes to arrive to that point is pretty brilliant, with almost identical scenes triggering a polar response due to a slight change in tone and the difference in context.

In a way, it’s a calmer, meditative version of Holy Motors. It grabs you in a similar way, with intrigue rather than exposition and takes you on a roller coaster of emotions and unanswered questions. Like Holy Motors, it contains a euphoric musical centerpiece sequence that could have easily felt out of context if done incorrectly, but this way, it feels perfect. The film carefully leaves blanks for each viewer to fill in, which makes it an intensely personal experience. It’s a grand cinematic achievement with astonishing mise-en-scène in its generally very long sequences as well as warm, rich cinematography. It’s absurd, it’s real, it’s surprising, it’s oh so emotional. The Golden Lion was absolutely deserved.


The Postman’s White Nights (Andrey Konchalovskiy, 2014)

By casting the people of a small village in Northern Russia as themselves, director Andrey Konchalovskiy brought key authenticity to this beautiful portrait of life itself. Both modest and ambitious, Konchalovskiy approaches the subject with respect, understanding and a sense of humour, painting a picture that is at the same time extremely funny (as it playfully embraces that side of the Russian spirit), touchingly real (as the everyday situations begin to make you feel more at home in the village every time they play out) and achingly sad. The vast, beautiful emptiness of the landscape is contrasted by the richness of human connection and sense of community. But even so, loneliness and despair still crack through the smiles as time takes its toll, with friends slowly dying or moving to the big city.

Time and the outside world are treated here as the borders of this world. Each death in the village makes the hearts of its residents a little smaller and their lives a little emptier. The big city is strange and unfriendly; in fact, when the story moves to the city for a while, it even made me uncomfortable. The village just feels like home. Konchalovskiy’s direction is subtly brilliant. At times, he brings us close to the characters so that we feel like a part of the community; at other times we look at them from the distance, to see just how lonely they feel at home. He lets the story flow naturally but still includes a couple of fantastically-shot sequences, particularly those on the lead character’s boat. The Postman’s White Nights is a special film. A lot more could be said about it, but in a way, it’s a film you want to keep to yourself, to experience it and treasure it as your own. I might think again before declaring it the best one, but it’s certainly my favourite film of the entire festival.


Fires on the Plain (Shinya Tsukamoto, 2014)

Shinya Tsukamoto’s adaptation of the classic Japanese war novel was certainly the most explicitly violent film of the festival – and as Kim Ki-duk also had a film there, that says something. But while all the violence is hard to watch, it’s never pointless. The story follows Private Tamura, a Japanese soldier in World War II who gets separated from his company and is left to walk aimlessly through the Philippine jungle while experiencing starvation, shootings, fires and cannibalism. It’s a war film but it’s not about the fighting. It’s a survival story but the ending makes you wonder whether survival of this kind is even worth it. Essentially, it’s a film about the terrors of war, here so brutal that it hardly matters whether you win or lose, live or die.

The film is shot and edited in a brilliantly uncomfortable, almost claustrophobic style that even further pushes us into the barely watchable gore of the story. The ending feels deceptively cathartic at first, but only for so long that it clearly shows that such terrors cannot result in much else than psychological trauma, burning like the fires inside Private Tamura’s head. It makes its point sharply and concisely but much more effectively than many films that examine the subject for hours. And it works as well as it does simply because we too feel traumatized by everything that we’ve seen and the gore and the terrors burn inside our heads as well. It’s a brutally brilliant film but not one that makes you want to see it again.


The Sound and the Fury (James Franco, 2014)

While James Franco might have attracted huge crowds for his red carpet appearance in Venice, the same can’t be said for his movie. His adaptation of William Faulkner’s classic novel is probably his most conventional directorial effort yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s his least interesting. Franco definitely shows some promise as a director; although the story never feels as grand as the premise promises (certainly due to budget limitations as well), he gives it an authentic, poetic style, with beautiful cinematography and use of music. He separates the three chapters of the film well, giving each one a separate feel while still maintaining coherence.

Nonetheless, the whole film doesn’t add up to much more. Franco focuses more on the visual aspect than character development and the cast ensemble never truly conveys the depths of the story efficiently enough. Standing out from the mediocre is Franco’s own performance as the mentally disabled son, so unfortunate that it brings to mind Simple Jack, the purposefully awful meta-film from Tropic Thunder. His chapter – the first one – is also brought down by the odd structure, largely based on repetitive flashbacks. The other two chapters are conceived better, but at the end the film doesn’t really allow for much more than mere respect for the work involved.


Return to Ithaca (Laurent Cantet, 2014)

Making brilliant use of the triple unity of time, space and action, Laurent Cantet’s latest film takes place over a night at a terrace overlooking Havana and basically consists of a conversation between five old friends. Yes, the description is deceptively simple. In reality, this is a great observation of long-time friendship, reflecting on the past, regrets and the importance of memories. It’s a political film, reflecting on the oppression of the Cuban communist regime, especially directed towards the artistically inclined youth. In that regard, it’s an important film and not an entirely specific one, as it also holds importance for those growing up under the shadow of similar regimes, especially in Eastern Europe (as I and some of my jury colleagues agreed).

But above all, it’s a very touching, personal story. Cantet’s masterful screenplay slowly and carefully develops the analytic story while making sure that it never feels like a novel or a play. In fact, despite its theatrical qualities, the story couldn’t have worked as well on stage as many of its nuances and most of its power come from the precise mise-en-scène, a smart combination of introspective close-ups and contemplative wider shots.

Return to Ithaca was the only film that we unanimously chose for our final selection of three (which also included Between 10 and 12 and Summer Nights), and as soon as we’d seen all of the films, it was clear it was going to be our winner. The fact that a film dealing with the weight of the past made such an impression on such a young jury is yet another testament to its unique power. Not only one of the best films of the festival, but also one for the ages.